Thursday, 3 December 2015

Jesus inciting outrage for blasphemous association with God: the power of rhetoric

References:       Matthew 9:2-3                 Mark 2:7             John 5:18b          John 10:33         

David Martorana is a friend of mine and also a sound evangelical scholar, theologian, teacher and pastor. He has done a Masters in a specific kind of theology known as kenosis. He is – I think – Calvinist and needless to say also a strong Trinitarian. I was not a very strong anything at the time I was working through some of my early questions, so when I shared some of these with him and he argued without batting an eyelid from John 10:33, I knew I had better shut up and listen:
We are not stoning you for any good work,’ they replied, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be [a] God.[1]

But is it that simple? No, it definitely is not. I have now discovered this to be another clear example of interpretation, and that the passage is not at all without other sound exegetical possibilities. Context will show us why.

In verse 24, the Jews gathering around Jesus are desperate to get some yes/no clarity on whether or not Jesus really was God’s messiah. As is his typical way, Jesus does not give a straight-up answer, but seems to be basically affirming that he is identifiable as the Messiah by the works he does in the name of his Father (verse 25), and by how his followers know him to be that One, the promised Messiah. Jesus seems to then say that God the Father is the greatest of all[2]. Then we get the “assist” – in football, the player who sets up the team-mate who scores the goal is recognised as having provided the “assist”, and in verses 28 and 29 we get just that. Like the crucial pass before the goal, we get to the “assist” of Jesus’ discourse: no-one shall pluck them out from my hand (Jesus’ hand), and no-one shall pluck them from my Father’s hand (and he is the greatest). You can sense the crescendo here, and then the volley into the top corner of the net: I and the Father are one.

We have already analysed what John means (or the limits of what he means) when he talks about multiple persons being “one” in the preceding section. In addition to this we know that this figurative language is not only at work in the word “one”, but also in the word “hand” – the Father does not have physical hands – only the Son, according to Trinitarian theology, became incarnate. But that does not mean that Jesus’ figurative language was bullet-proof against misunderstanding. The New Testament contains many examples of where Jesus was misunderstood by people, especially the religious authorities, and even at times by his own disciples. Despite my friend David’s traditional interpretation of this passage, we shall see that the ensuing allegations of blasphemy do not automatically qualify Jesus’ claim as that of being Almighty God – it may well even be the least probable idea present in Jesus’ (and John’s) mind.

Now Jesus could have remained silent, as he does later before his crucifixion, in which case we would have been left with less context and open to wider speculation on the blasphemy accusations. But on this occasion, John recalls him replying in the form of two questions – either to affirm the allegations, deny them, or to say something else: that is up to every student of the Holy Scriptures to decide.

Question 1 (verse 34): Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your Law, “I have said you are gods?” (yes/no question)
Question 2 (verses 35-36): If he called them gods, to whom the word of God [be]came – and Scripture cannot be set aside – what about the one whom the Father sanctified as his very own and sent into the world, are you saying that I am blaspheming because I said “I am God’s Son”?
(yes/no question)
Finally, verse 37 reiterates almost exactly Jesus’ initial response (verse 25) to whether or not he is the Messiah – he is doing the Father’s work.

Because I knew (and still know) a lot less in theology than David, and it seemed that Jesus’ answer seemed nuanced and far from affirmative, I did some research into Jesus’ questions in the New Testament. There is a fairly obvious reason why Jesus’ questions do not feel affirmative, and that is because of the way rhetoric works, and also how Jesus consistently uses rhetorical questions. This is what I found out.

Jesus asks approximately 150 questions in the New Testament, and the majority of these are rhetorical. We can divide them into:
“either/or” questions (e.g. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes–from their own sons or from others?” [3])
·        “How” questions (e.g. “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?[4])
·        “What” questions (e.g. “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” [5])
·        “Where” questions (e.g. “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” [6])
·        “Who” questions (e.g. Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” [7])
·        “Why” questions (e.g. Why are you trying to trap me?” [8])
·        Yes/no” questions (e.g. Have you never read in the Scriptures?” [9])

This “yes/no” is the category that is of the most interest to us, but the whole rhetoric strategy needs to be kept in full view to help us answer Jesus’ rhetorical questions. In almost every case of rhetorical questioning, there is something negative in the expected response. That is not because Jesus was a negative person; it is simply part of how rhetoric functions. So the point is that rhetorical questions are designed to make the listeners think and, if possible, align themselves with the speaker. It is not about gathering new information. However, if you were to reply in English, they usually require a negative form to get to where the speaker is driving the conversation.
So it looks something like this:
  Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? OK Jesus, I get it: it cannot.
·        If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? OK Jesus, I see now, I won’t get a good reward that way.
·        Were not all ten cleansed? No, “not not” all ten were cleansed à OK Jesus, it is not true that not all ten were not cleansed (all 10 were indeed cleansed!)
·        Where are the other nine? Sorry Jesus, I do not know, something is wrong, they should be here but they are not.
·        Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? I think I get it Jesus: no-one can!
·        Why are you trying to trap me? OK Jesus, I can see what you are saying: we should not be trying to do that.
·        Have you never read in the Scriptures? Jesus you know that is not true, that I have read it, but maybe I did not understand it…

The double negative “not not” above is ugly. The French have a neat way out of the negative question; they simply say si. If an implied si is required by the speaker to correct the negative tension in the speaker’s yes/no question, then it is probably rhetorical!
So bearing this negative tension in mind we can return to the blasphemy arguments used by Trinitarians.

Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your Law, “I have said you are gods?” (yes/no question)
Si, it is written in our law “I have said you are gods”.
If he called them gods, to whom the word of God [be]came – and Scripture cannot be set aside – what about the one whom the Father sanctified as his very own and sent into the world, are you saying that I am blaspheming because I said “I am God’s Son”?

This second one is a little more complicated, and some translations separate it into two questions. Remember above how some examples of Jesus’ rhetoric were to get listeners to think about what they should not be doing. All we can conclude from this question is that the speaker, Jesus, was driving his Jewish accusers toward this conclusion: “OK Jesus I was saying that, but I should not have been”.

One unresolved point remains, and it will remain as such – should there or should there not be an indefinite article before “GOD”? We have already seen how biased interpretation regarding the articles has meant people inconsistently read into Justin Martyr’s theology. In Greek, the absence of the article might mean nothing. However, its absence could also be the indefinite article, “a”. Both are possible. However, exegesis leads to a distinct possibility of an intended indefinite article here, simply because of the way Jesus responds to the Jews from Psalm 82. Psalm 82 (Yahweh presides over the council of the gods), Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 (You shall have no other gods before me) and Deuteronomy 32 (the writer tells that the Israelites must remember when Yahweh allotted the nations to various “sons of God”[10]) paint a different picture of monotheism to the one we often adopt today, and certainly do not require us to add the inserted quotations marks around “gods”. Although a more modern scheme of monotheism might require that addition, when we try to understand the Jewish views in Jesus’ time, we need to exercise more caution.

Returning to a similar passage in Mark where Jesus is accused of blasphemy, we see the outrage: who can forgive sins but God alone? Or more literally, who can forgive sins if not one, the God. This time we have the definite article, and indeed for Mark’s teachers of the law, if Jesus, this son of Man, should be forgiving sins then he would be blaspheming on that level. The title The Son of Man applied to the issue of sin-forgiveness is blasphemous precisely because a son of man, in Old Testament parlance, is equivalent to saying “human”[11]. The shocking point of Mark’s gospel is underlined then in this story that Jesus as this human has a very special status and authority as God’s Son (Mark 1:11). The stress of this Markan story therefore is not so much the blasphemous claims of divine identity as the blasphemous claims of divine authority, and is further borne out by Mark 2:8 (and Matthew 9:6): “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive…”
It would seem that in order for Jesus’ accusers’ outrage to be suggestive of Jesus somehow claiming to be a second member of a triune God, we would need to ignore a distinctively possible alternative explanation: that Jesus incited outrage and was condemned blasphemous, because he claimed he was the special Son of God[12], sent[13], authorised[14], anointed[15] and empowered[16] by God his Father to save God’s people. Not only that, he combined into this claim the counter-attack that the religious authorities were doing quite the opposite. The fight was on and both sides had to get out the biggest guns in their arsenal. Jesus’ was astonishing confidence, appeal to miraculous signs and expounding embarrassing truth with hyperbole, parable and rhetoric. The religious authorities’ was social standing and condemnation of the highest degree.

[1] Obviously there was no “a” in the quote when David recited it!
[2] Alternatively, but less likely in my view, that Jesus’ followers (his “sheep”) are the greatest thing of all – some translations go for this.
[3] Matthew 17:25
[4] Luke 14:34. There are also a few non-rhetorical “how many” questions – I counted three.
[5] Matthew 5:46. Here rhetorical and non-rhetorical questions appear to be of similar number.
[6] Luke 17:17
[7] Luke 12:25
[8] Matthew 22:18
[9] Matthew 21:42
[10] Some modern translations stay with “sons of Israel”, which had been taken from the Masoretic Text. Much more ancient sources like the Dead Sea scrolls and the Septuagint say “sons of God”.
[11] L. Hurtado, New International Biblical Commentary: Mark, p. 37-38, Paternoster, Carlisle, 1995.
[12] We already looked at Mark 1:11 in context. Among the many other examples of Jesus’ sonship, we should also especially note John 5:18, where Jesus’ claims of sonship meant that the religious authorities wanted to kill him.
[13] John 6:29, John 8:42a, John 17:3b, Acts 3:20, John 8:42b, John 16:27, John 16:30, 1 John 4:9 and 1 John 4:10
[14] Matthew 28:18, Luke 1:32, John 5:27, John 13:3a, John 17:2 and Ephesians 1:22                                   
[15] Acts 10:38 and Hebrews 5:10
[16] Acts 10:38 again: …God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

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